Here’s Ken Wilson in his favorite place–a fishing boat on a lake. He has fly-fished with mystery’s finest–T. Jefferson Parker, C.J. Box, and Brian Wiprud. This particular photo was taken by Parker.
So what the heck is a media escort? It sounds slightly nefarious yet glamorous at the same time. Media escorts take authors around to bookstores, either for events or book signings. And you can imagine, for traffic-challenged L.A., these escorts are high in demand.
Think that you need to be a bestselling author to command an escort? After my debut trade paperback original mystery was published in spring of 2004, I hired an escort for a day for a couple hundred of dollars plus gas. There are many excellent escorts to choose from (and I hope to profile more in future posts). But based upon a recommendation from a writer friend, I chose Ken Wilson and was not disappointed.
His mission was to chauffeur me, not to events, but to unscheduled drive-by signings. In a single day, we hit more than a dozen bookstores, from Sherman Oaks to Northridge to Westwood to LAX to Torrance to Studio City. I thought I was familiar with a good many shortcuts through L.A., but Ken knew all the backroads, even at the height of rush-hour traffic.
Of course, I could have driven myself to all these bookstores in perhaps two or three days. But Ken had the connections. He reacquainted me with Lita Weissman, the queen of Borders special events, and introduced me to a score of other chain booksellers, which eventually led to some great in-store events. I can sell the pants off of a product created by friends, but my own work? I get a little tongue-tied, I admit. There are definitely naturally gifted and charming ones, like this author who is tearing up the country in his Suzuki Sidekick.
My friend Carolyn Sanwo of Heritage Source says I’m better at selling myself than most Japanese Americans who are more restrained and have a dignified sense of chanto, propriety (see below). Even so, it is nice to have an advocate to sing your praises alongside of you. Ken is one of the best.
It’s about time to hear it from the man himself, Ken Wilson.
How did you get into the media escort business?
I started in 1981. I had worked at Brentano’s Bookstore in the Beverly Wilshire Hotel for two years in the mid-seventies while I was a freelance newspaper and magazine writer. One of my fellow employees went on to become the Warner Books sales rep. In the late seventies, the publishers would send celebrity authors to various cities and put them into the hands of the local sales rep. The publicity department at the publisher would book them onto the local morning TV show and the sales rep would escort them to the TV studio and then spend the rest of the day taking them to local (at that time mostly independent) bookstores to meet and greet the booksellers and sign stock. The practice got to be popular–so much so that my sales rep friend couldn’t do it and still do her job selling books. She recommended an actor friend of ours as a substitute, and after a short time, he decided it wasn’t for him. I then got the call and the rest is history.
I remember that you mentioned that you had written a book on things to do with with children in L.A. What did you learn about book promotion from that experience? (BTW, is that book still in print?)
The book of which you speak, KIDS ON BOARD, published (ironically) by Warner Books was reasearched and written in 1987 and ’88 and published in ’89. It was a real eye opener for me as the book was published on the same date as the Time-Life Warner merger. One of the casualties of the merger was Warner Books’ entire Travellers Bookshelf imprint which was discontinued. Luckily, the book was printed and distributed, but that was all. The publicity department was forced to cancel a big 10-city promotional tour. I was disappointed, of course, but decided to try my hand at booking media on my own. Again, luckily, TV and radio producers seemed intrigued by the fact that an author would do his own pitching and I got booked on most of the programs I approached. It afforded me an opportunity for on-the-job publicist training that I use to this day. Oh, the book went out of print in 1992.
Ken, I find you very unique in your field because you’re not merely driving authors around, but you participate in the promotion, whether it’s talking them up to CRMs (community relations managers) or calling bookstores ahead of time. Is that your typical M.O.?
Yes. As media in large markets like Los Angeles gets harder and harder to book (there’s pretty much no way to get an author onto most morning TV programs unless he or she is a celebrity), I realized it was essential to provide the publicity department at the publisher with a valuable alternative to media.
If you embrace the notion that books are hand sold, one at a time, and that book store employees are in the best position to recommend and hand sell, it seemed obvious to me that, in the down times between interviews, authors would be best served by meeting as many booksellers as possible. We go into the stores, press the flesh with the employees and get the author to sign the store stock. In many stores, that signed stock (now marked prominently with autograph stickers) goes to the front of the store and is placed in a prominent position.
Since I’ve come to know most sales staffs in nearly all of the stores (chains and independents) in Southern California, I’ve learned who best to introduce my authors to, depending on the subject matter of a book.
In the past couple of years, with fewer and fewer authors being toured by their publishers, in-store marketing has become an essential alternative in getting the word out about a book. Authors themselves, often at the recommendation of their publishers, hire me to do this grass roots marketing.
Do you find that there’s a lot of change in CRM/owner/manager bookstore personnel in Southern Cal? How do you keep abreast with such changes?
There is always turnover. However, managerial positions are somewhat static, and since I’m in most of these stores on at least a weekly basis, I keep up with the changes.
In terms of drop-in signings and events, some authors focus solely on independent bookstores, while others concentrate on the chains. Is it a one-size fits all situation or do you think the formula changes with each author? Please explain.
It’s essential to visit both independents and chain stores. I vary somewhat on my approach to each type. I almost always call indies before a drop in as they tend to get embarrassed if they don’t have my author’s books. If I can, I give them a ten day heads up so that, if they want to, they can order books. With the chains, I call a few locations just to see if generally there are books in the stores. Both Borders and Barnes and Noble have the computer capability to see if other stores in the area carry the book in question.
But with small press, sometimes there will be no stores that carry the book. Undeterred, we still press forward with our visits. In many cases, when an author takes the time and trouble to come to a store, we can usually get that store to order copies once we explain what the book is all about.
When an author does a drop-in signing, what materials should she bring with her? Should she call in advance or just go direct to the bookstore? What days are best for drop-in signings?
My favorite thing to bring is a free copy of the book. Talking to store personnel, we determine who would be most likely to read the book in question and get the author to sign and personalize it to that person. It’s amazing how much traction you can get by giving away an autographed copy.
A copy of a favorable review is also a good thing to bring with you. A few years ago a lot of authors began having postcards made that were adorned with the book cover on the front and some laudatory review quotes on the back. So many, in fact, that stores started getting flooded with postcards and no place to put them. I suggest that, instead of postcards, authors should consider book marks. You can still have a facsimile of the cover and couple of positive quotes, but stores will be more likely to accept them because they take up less counter space. And, as most stores will tell you, everybody needs a bookmark.
I call the indies ahead of time, but that’s because I can usually get them to order books based on our relationship. But, if an author calls him or herself and the store says they don’t have the book and wouldn’t be inclined to order it, the author has lost out on the possibility of stating his or her case in person. I can’t emphasize enough how important personal contact is.
The best days to visit stores (at least in Los Angeles) are Monday through Thursday (Friday traffic is terrible and we can’t get to as many stores as on those other days). When you are adding genre stores (like mystery or sci-fi stores) you need to determine the days they are open. In greater L.A., there are some mystery stores that are closed on certain weekdays.
What other services do you offer?
I do publicist work, specializing in Southern California.
Thank you, Ken!
Whether or not you decide to hire your own media escort, Ken has shared some great advice on drive-by signings. His suggestion that writers bring copies of their books as giveaways (a practice that Joe Konrath has embraced in his marathon book tour) is excellent. Ken recommended that I, as a unknown mystery writer, mail about 100 autographed copies of my debut trade PBO to independent bookstores across the nation. I didn’t do it–I didn’t want to spend the extra money and figured that ARCs would take care of that, anyway. But I regret it now because booksellers do love and appreciate signed books. It would have been a great way to launch a series.
Ken is gaining notoriety nationally as he was recently interviewed for a Pages Magazine article on in-store marketing. Look for it in December.
And the most important thing, his contact e-mail: KWMedia@earthlink.net. You can contact him directly if you have any questions about his current rates, etc.
Ken will most likely be on the road today, but go ahead and post any questions and comments for him and hopefully he can get to them at the end of the day.
L.A. Mix Profile is an occasional Wednesday feature of Murderati. Who will be next? Stay tuned.
WEDNESDAY’S WORD: chanto (SUMMER OF THE BIG BACHI, page 127)
Proper, appropriate, just right. Japanese American parents usually impress this principle upon their children. Years ago, I wrote a column, "The Importance of Being Chanto," for my former newspaper, The Rafu Shimpo. It was later excerpted in the Los Angeles Times and reprinted in a book for Japanese American youth, NIKKEI DONBURI, and then reappeared in my column, “Three Degrees of Separation,” for the Pacific Citizen. It related how "unchanto" I was, much to the chagrin of my mother. I’ll be posting it next month as part of a regular monthly “Three Degrees of Separation” feature, which begin next week.
MIDDLE-AGED NAOMI GETS OUT: Was that me wandering the streets of Hollywood Boulevard on Friday night? Thanks to the guidance and company of thirtysomething brother and his twentysomething girlfriend, I was actually going to a concert that STARTED at 10:30 PM! That’s the time I start dozing off in the middle of Law & Order. We were at the Knitting Factory Hollywood to meet for the first time and support a second-cousin. The music of Bjorkestra was quite excellent; I would encourage New Yorkers to check out the band and more importantly the pianist cousin at their performance at the Tonic in NYC this Friday. And Hollywood Boulevard at 12:45 AM? It’s a madhouse, definitely Blade Runnerish. I would recommend all to have this quintessential Hollywood experience, but it helps if you have L.A. Generation X-er and Y-ers as your entertainment escorts.